What Does it Feel Like to Launch a Game?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
It's been almost a week that Political Animals has been on sale on Steam/GoG/Humble. It's been quite the emotional roller coaster. I wanted to take a week to absorb all the emotions and share it with gamers and gamedevs alike. My apologies for a lack of stats. I was hoping to share some in this post, but given I can't be too specific with them as per Steam's rules, there's nothing super interesting to show you right now. I may do a more stats heavy blog in the future once we have a bigger sample size.
Given we're not allowed to share actual Steam data, the best we can do is compare out expectations of launch versus how things actually turned out. We had reasonable expectations for a good launch. Our publisher, Positech Games, has a good track record and fanbase fond of political games to draw from. We had positive experiences from players at PAX and EGX. We gave out keys to press and Youtubers (This is the funniest LP by far) a week prior to launch and we were getting a lot of positive feedback. Total Biscuit even responded with a Steam key request right after I blasted my press release, which was quite exciting. And we were able to launch right before the US elections, which was our target all along.
There were some warning signs though. The Halloween Sale happened right before launch, and that's always a terrible time to launch a game. It was not quite as big as a summer sale, but it's always bad to chase after customers after their wallets have just been emptied. We were also having a hard time getting traditional press coverage, which would be an issue later on. And Positech has had games do poorly before, with Democracy : Africa and Gratuitous Space Battle 2 being the biggest disappointments.
Given we worked virtually (we all live in different parts of Metro Manila and meet once a week) We'd made a team decision to get together after the launch instead of waiting for it together. I personally went to watch Dr. Strange (entertaining movie, if you can get past Cumberbatch's strained American accent) and waited up for the launch with some close friends before calling it a night.
Note: because we live in the Philippines, the 10am launch in the US was actually 1am in the Philippines.
After a less than restful sleep, I woke up to immediately check on our first day sales so far. We'd previously been informed that we'd be featured on the front page so I was a little bit excited. I'm struggling to remember what I felt when I finally saw the numbers. Shock? Sadness? Probably a stunned silence. Surely they couldn't be so low. I impotently clicked refresh a few times until I was satisfied that this wasn't some error. When it finally sank in that we were probably Positech's poorest performing game, I was a little surprised at how I felt. I just sat there for what felt like ages thinking "well, we flopped." I sank two and a half years of my life chasing this day and we flopped. I was a little worried about how numb I was feeling. Shouldn't I be crying or something? Is this what shock feels like?
I stood up and told my wife the bad news. We sat for a bit while she comforted me. But it was a weekday, so she soon left for work while I drifted back to stare blankly at the computer screen to click on refresh yet again. Then I did only thing that I could do, which was try to figure why exactly we'd flopped so badly.
Why Didn't People Buy our Game?
The Halloween sale probably had a bigger impact than we thought. It's hard to ask players for more money when they've just shelled out for games. Double Fine also had their day of the devs bundle out at the same time, providing incredible value for just a few dollars. While there will always be other games out when you launch, I think we picked a particularly poor time to do it.
"Looks really cute and could be a lot of fun. But as an American I really don't associate fun with elections right now. Dread, yes."
The above quote was from a comment on GoG. I'm not putting too much stock in just the one comment, but the electino cycle in the US takes an obscenely long amount of time, and my sense is that at this point most people just want it to be over already. Had we launched a month or more ago this might have been less of an issue.
After noticing some people on our game's discussion page opine that the game A) had great art but B) "looked like a mobile game" and C) lacked strategic depth (despite their not having played the game), I decided to take a look at our Steam store page. I got really upset at myself at that point. The store page is the first thing most players will see of your game, so it's important to make a good impression. Your trailer, screenshots, descriptions and reviews all have to work together to convince the prospective player that your game is worth buying. Our store page had an incomplete description and no links to reviews. It's no wonder people were making these assumptions about our game. If we couldn't even put together a proper Steam store page, how could we make a good game? Sadly, the biggest thing that might have affected our sales was something that was very much in our control, and I dropped the ball.
Lastly, I should say it is entirely possible that the game just feels too expensive for what it is, and that maybe the game just isn't good. As for the first, I suppose we'll find out in a few months. We've got a surprising amount of wishlists, and if a bunch of those convert during a sale, then we'll know how much people actually value the game. As for whether or not it's good, we're happy with the feedback the game got at PAX and EGX so we're pretty confident saying we've made a good game.
Engaging the Community
Now that I'd identified some of the launch day issues, the only thing left to do was to try to rectify them as best as we could. First, that meant fixing the issues with the Steam store page. Next, we dived deep into the Community discussions and responded as best as we could to people's concerns. In some ways, this is a dangerous move. Developers can get very defensive about their work, and it's very easy to get into an argument with a player and become labeled an angry dev. Any devs who want to wade into community discussions need to approach it with an air of humility. Always assume that any complaint is a valid concern, even if it seems dismissive. My father in law once told me that a customer that complains is valuable, because they could just as easily have walked away without letting you know why. If they're complaining, take that as opportunity to convince them to give you another chance. Which is exactly what I did with one guy who was on the fence. I asked what was keeping him on the fence, then we had a short back and forth which ended up with him saying :
"Well, with Steam offering a 2-hour refund window, I decided that I'll go ahead and grab the game and give it a whirl."
How did I do it? It's not magic. I never once tried to "correct" his intuition that the game was lacking in strategy. I merely explained that based on our experience at conventions people were happy with the level of strategy, and also linked to a Eurogamer article about it. That was enough to persuade them to try out the game, which is all I really wanted.
Aside from that, we took note of what people are saying they want from the game. They say the game feels a bit unbalanced. We'll look into that. A lot of people are asking for multiplayer, so we've penciled that in as an update. There were a few questions about Linux. Assuming all goes well that will be coming soon. More than anything it's the fact that we're engaging with the community that makes people commit to the game. They feel like we're not just gonna drop the game and never update it again. We're also still actively looking for press to cover the game to try to keep it in people's minds and give the game some more legitimacy.
We've also been approached by localizers in China, Russia, etc. places where games don't traditionally do very well due to piracy and a lack of English speaking players. Localization is definitely a pain, but maybe taking a broader outlook is the way we can keep the game relevant in the coming months and years.
We're proud of the game we've made. We're also proud to contribute to the number of Philippine made games on Steam. That may not seem like a big deal to countries with a wealth of developers and games, but it certainly means a lot to us. It still seems almost impossible that we managed to put the game out on Steam.
We regret being such a poor investment for Positech in the short term, but they'll make their money back over the long haul, and hopefully even sooner if we manage to play our cards right.
As for the team, it was definitely pretty rough. Our first meeting after seeing the sales numbers was pretty somber, but we ended it with a rousing karaoke session that lifted our spirits, if not our sales. We'll keep working hard to make sure that this game is the best it can be, and hopefully we'll have a chance to make another one.
Thanks for reading. Political Animals is out! If you're a games journalist or streamer that wants a review copy, please check out our press kit and distribute() link. If you'd like to be updated on the latest Political Animals news, please sign up for our mailing list, join our Facebook group, or follow us on Twitter!